April 26, 2023

Configuration Management Tools: Examples, What to Try + How to Find the Right One

Configuration Management
Products & Services

Configuration management tools can help you track and manage changes to systems within your infrastructure, making sure that your software and hardware runs reliably and smoothly. As we’ve said in other blogs about DevOps tools and best practices, often the tools are not the problem when organizations are rolling out changes — it’s the “why.” 

In this blog, we’ll take a step back to examine the “why” to better support your search though different configuration management tools. There are a lot of tools out there, but it’s important to know why you’re searching in the first place, and what your organizational needs are. Let the hunt begin! 

Table of Contents: 

What are Configuration Management Tools? 

Configuration management tools track and control changes that are made to systems and environments — hardware or software — to make sure that quality and compliance is maintained. 

Configuration management can broadly cover the different kinds of regular management that happens in your environment, such as: 

  • Infrastructure as Code (IaC): When you use configuration management within IaC, you are able to manage resources like servers, networks, and storage in a declarative way. 
  • Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD): CI/CD tools automate the “build, test, and deploy” pipeline, and can be configured according to the needs of the DevOps team managing this pipeline.
  • Compliance as Code (CaC): Use of a similar declarative approach aligns configurations to industry best-practice security standards, such as the Center for Internet Security’s (CIS) benchmarks. This eliminates policy drift and the ‘fire drill’ that often results. 
  • Version Control: This tool tracks changes to files and allows users to revert back to files if needed. Version control can be configured according to what rules this process should follow. 

Even the term “configuration management” is a little misleading — it can refer to many different, sometimes very different, kinds of tasks that you need to perform in your environment. From updates to file access to compliance, the way that you configure your infrastructure from the smallest task to the largest requirement can make a huge difference. 

👀 See configuration management in action with a use case >>

When you look even further, yes, even the word “tool” is misleading. Under the umbrella of configuration management, you will find automation, compliance, and collaboration. The right configuration management tool isn’t just a tool, it’s a set of actions that can be performed under a holistic set of goals for your environment. 

Configuration Management Tools: Examples + What to Try

Your options for configuration management tools are vast and varied. It's not always clear what's the best option for managing configurations in your infrastructure.

Here are some of the most popular examples of configuration management tools:

A list is fine, but let's make it a bit easier to narrow your search. Let's break out configuration management tools by what's right for your IT infrastructure.

Configuration Management Tools for Simple IT

If your organization is only deployed in data centers OR cloud, or if you're only managing a small number of nodes, you might find it easier to get started with a simple configuration management tool. Consider trying:

  • Puppet Bolt: Lightweight, agentless, and ideal for small IT and starter automations.
  • Puppet Enterprise: Our free 10-node trial is the perfect way to get started with small-time configuration management.
  • Chef Solo: Unlike Chef, Chef Solo doesn't require a central server.
  • Docker: Docker is built explicitly for container configuration management.
  • Ansible: Low resource requirements mean Ansible can work for managing a small number of servers.
    • Ansible vs. Puppet: Ansible uses imperative automation to enforce configurations, where Puppet uses declarative automation. The difference matters, especially in complex IT environments.
  • Microsoft SCCM: Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) is built for Windows-only configuration management.

Configuration Management Tools for Big IT

If your IT environment is already too big for simpler tools (high node count, compliance requirements, cross-deployed infrastructure, etc.), consider the options below:

  • Terraform: In large IT estates, Terraform works with Puppet: Terraform can help provision servers, storage, and networking devices while Puppet can manage OSes and app-level configurations.
  • Kubernetes: Modules on the Puppet Forge can install and configure a Kubernetes cluster to make configuration management easier at scale.
  • SaltStack: While it's generally designed to scale, SaltStack (colloquially just called Salt) uses a push model based off the ZeroMQ library, which ultimately require additional coding and configurations – which is especially cumbersome in large IT environments.
  • AWS Systems Manager: If you're deep into AWS, this suite can help you manage configurations, patch, and automate.

Finding the Best Configuration Management Tools 

The options above can give you an idea of the landscape, but they shouldn't be taken as prescriptive. It can't be said enough that the “best” configuration management tool is the one that meets your specific needs.

Here are a few factors to consider when choosing a configuration management tool.

Your Environment 

How large and complex are the systems that you need to manage? Are you working within a cloud environment, on-prem, or a hybrid of both? How many users do you manage, and how large is the team that is managing them? 

Your Budget 

The price of a configuration management tool that handles one task, like version control for instance, will vary from a configuration management platform that will handle everything you need to configure within your environment. We’ll explore more about configuration platforms in the next section. 

Your Specific Requirements 

Do you need configuration management to help with compliance? To automate tasks? To update or patch systems? Not every configuration management tool will be able to support every kind of task — it’s important to approach your search with this in mind. 

You’ll want to ask yourself: 

  • Is it compatible and scalable with the current infrastructure? Configuration management software will need to play well with your current operating systems and scale to manage a growing number of nodes and team members that will need to access configuration management across complex environments.
  • What level of automation will you need? If you are looking for deployment automation, policy as code enforcement, or the overall management of systems and applications, you’ll want to make sure the tool offers some level of automation.
  • What are your industry compliance requirements? You’ll also want to think ahead for audits and generally ensure that active configuration is aligned with internal and external policy. 
  • What are the security features you’re looking for? Your configuration management solution should make it easy to manage the security of automation infrastructure. 

This is where the search for a single tool becomes complicated — can one tool accomplish every requirement that your configuration management plan needs? 

Enter the configuration platform, which encompasses multiple tools. 

Configuration Tools vs. A Configuration Platform

 Configuration management tools set out to accomplish a set of tasks — but what if you need a solution that does more than just configuration? What if you are looking for a tool that also includes visibility into changes being made and automated alerts to let you know how a change could impact your environment? 

A configuration platform covers more than specific tasks. 

What is a Configuration Platform? 

A configuration management platform integrates multiple tools and capabilities for managing configuration and automation tasks across an entire IT environment. 

A platform includes infrastructure discovery, asset management, policy enforcement, and reporting and analytics. Configuration management platforms are designed to provide a more holistic view of an organization's IT environment and enable more comprehensive automation and management capabilities. 

Puppet Enterprise is an example of a configuration management platform, since it includes features such as: 

  • Application delivery 
  • Patch management 
  • Continuous compliance 
  • IT process automation 

While configuration management tools are focused on specific areas of functionality, a configuration management platform provides a more comprehensive set of capabilities across an entire IT environment. 

Puppet is More Than Just a Configuration Tool 

Puppet Enterprise is more than just a configuration management tool — we call it a platform for a reason. 

You can customize your Puppet Enterprise to work exactly how you need it to with Continuous Delivery for Puppet Enterprise and Puppet Comply — all different pieces of a larger platform that can help you holistically manages automation, compliance, change management, and other tasks across your environment while providing broad visibility and scalability. It’s this level of robust “can-do” management that really makes it more than a tool. 

We’d love to show you what we mean with a free demo of Puppet Enterprise along with the different features that are specific to your needs: